Tom Clarkson: Why Brexit has nothing on Love Island for UK voters
Brexit has lost its immediacy for many ordinary people who are fed up of 'endless' media coverage.
“It’s just going on and on.” The public is bored of Brexit. In a week where the Westminster bubble has been fixated on backstops, meaningful votes and walkouts, new BritainThinks research has underlined just how little attention the public is paying to the day-to-day of the Brexit process.
Our research, based on focus groups with ‘swing’ Brexit voters and a nationally representative poll, shows that Brexit has lost its immediacy for many ordinary people. Already seen as a very complex and partisan issue, many now struggle to see its relevance to their own lives and are fed up of “endless” media coverage of the topic: “You get the same old faces [on the TV]. I’ve kind of lost interest in the content of what they’re saying.” Always a niche concern for large swathes of the electorate before David Cameron called a referendum, it seems that the UK’s relationship with the EU may now be returning to this position in the minds of the British public.
And while people on both sides of the Brexit divide think that negotiations with the EU are going badly, their negative perceptions are driven primarily by the speed of these talks, rather than their content: “Just get on with it! All you ever hear is the politicians arguing about it.” For many swing Remainers, there is a strong desire to get Brexit over and done with.
Consistent with this, there is a huge gap between perceptions of the Brexit process and expectations of life after the UK has left the EU. While only 22% of the public think that the Government has done a good job so far on Brexit negotiations, both Remain and Leave swing voters told us that they believe that life after the UK leaves will be fine: “Brexit is like David Beckham, because it’s going to get better with age. Once we’re out of the EU, it will get better, but it will take some time.”
In this context, the public are far less bothered about negotiations with the EU and far more interested in life after Brexit. Within Westminster, much of the focus recently has been on the potential for a “no deal” scenario – and there has been intense discussion of the Government’s planning for this eventuality. But this has not cut through to the public. Most of the people in our focus groups had simply never heard of the potential for a “no deal” outcome – and even when this was explained, we were met with blank faces.
Around two thirds of the public think it’s likely that the UK and the EU won’t reach a deal – but, qualitatively, it’s clear that the public don’t know what the possible consequences of this are. Many of the concerns we heard in focus groups centred on the belief that “no deal” would mean the UK had to remain a member of the EU, rather than on the “cliff-edge” that keeps many policy-makers awake at night.
Looking ahead, more than half of the public think that voters should get a say on the final deal between the UK and the EU – but this sentiment is fragile and currently seems better characterised as tolerance for the idea of a vote, rather than a burning desire to be heard. Many swing voters express significant concerns about the implications of a vote for the status of democracy in the UK – as one Remainer said: “I would want a vote for selfish reasons, but democratically we can’t have one.”
One Leaver in the focus groups spelt out their own concern on another vote: “If you’re not happy with the winners of Love Island, you can’t revote, can you?” Some in Westminster might argue that the consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU will be more profound than those of ITV’s summer smash hit. But such arguments may fall on deaf ears – two years after the referendum, many voters are certainly more preoccupied with the twists and turns of Love Island than they are with the minutiae of Brexit.
Tom Clarkson is associate director at BritainThinks.